What exactly happened at the Vatican's Extraordinary Synod on the Family yesterday?
At the conservative NewsBusters site, Ken Shepherd observed that, if you look to "many liberal media reporters" for the answer, you will find them "giddy as schoolchildren" at the synod's midterm report on its discussions about gays and divorced Catholics. That's an advocacy journalist critiquing the work of people that he clearly considered to be advocates.
A check of Twitter bears this out:
Did the earth really move?
It sure did for Josephine McKenna of Religion News Service (author of that last tweet), whose own story on the synod's report breathlessly describes "the real or implied changes that may or may not materialize" in the Church.
The RNS story begins by calling the synod's report "an about-face":
VATICAN CITY (RNS) -- The world’s Catholic bishops on Monday (Oct. 13) signaled a move toward greater tolerance of gays and lesbians, an about-face so unexpected that leaders of the church’s right wing called it a “betrayal.”
Noting that gays and lesbians have “gifts and qualities” to offer the church, the midpoint assessment reflected the impact that Pope Francis seems to be having on the two-week Synod on the Family as he pushes for a more open, less doctrinaire approach.
“Are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing them a fraternal space in our communities?” said the communique from the nearly 200 bishops and lay delegates. “Often they wish to encounter a church that offers them a welcoming home.
“Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?”
While they reaffirmed their opposition to gay marriage and same-sex unions, the bishops’ groundbreaking document nonetheless said homosexuality called for “serious reflection” and described it as an “important educative challenge” for the church. ...
Readers are then treated to John Thavis's assertion that the statement marks an "earthquake," followed by quotes from three sources praising the report's "more inclusive" approach: The Rev. James Martin of America and spokespersons from two groups that push for changes in the Church's teachings, the gay-rights lobby DignityUSA and Call to Action. Readers were also reminded of Francis's (much-misinterpreted) "who am I to judge."
Finally -- 17 paragraphs into the story -- we are given an actual quote from one of the "leaders of the church's right wing" (is that a political right wing or a doctrinal right wing?) mentioned in the lede:
The document -- and the real or implied changes that may or may not materialize -- stunned church conservatives. The Catholic group Voice of the Family, which represents 15 organizations in eight countries, called the document a “betrayal.”
“Those who are controlling the synod have betrayed Catholic parents worldwide,” said Voice of the Family co-founder John Smeaton.
“We believe that the synod’s mid-way report is one of the worst official documents drafted in Church history. Catholic families are clinging to Christ’s teaching on marriage and chastity by their fingertips.”
RNS doesn't mention that the Smeaton quote is from the Voice of the Family website. It appears that the RNS team sought original quotes from those in favor of the document, and then, rather than speaking to a live, breathing doctrinal conservative, simply dug up something inflammatory off the Web to represent the "other side."
The New York Times'' report by Rome correspondent Elisabetta Povoledo and Laurie Goodstein, "At the Vatican, A Shift in Tone Toward Gays and Divorce," is similarly starry-eyed -- the report is "a signal" which the Church "may follow":
VATICAN CITY -- In a marked shift in tone likely to be discussed in parishes around the world, an assembly of Roman Catholic bishops convened by Pope Francis at the Vatican released a preliminary document on Monday calling for the church to welcome and accept gay people, unmarried couples and those who have divorced, as well as the children of these less traditional families.
The bishops’ report, issued midway through a landmark two-week meeting, does not change church doctrine or teaching, and will now be subjected to fierce debate and revision at the assembly.
But it is the first signal that the institutional church may follow the direction Francis has set in the first 18 months of his papacy, away from condemnation of unconventional family situations and toward understanding, openness and mercy.
Note the dichotomy being set up: It is Pope "Who am I to judge?" Francis versus the "institutional church."
Never mind that Francis himself calls himself "a son of the Church" and frequently makes glowing reference to the "hierarchical Holy Mother Church" (a phrase he takes from St. Ignatius Loyola). Never mind that Francis insists that children have the right to grow up with a father and a mother. The Times wants us to believe that the pope has, for 18 months, been crusading to get an unheeding institutional church "away from condemnation of unconventional family situations and toward understanding, openness, and mercy." And the role of repentance and confession in that mercy?
The story continues:
Previous synods have produced little, but some participants in this one have likened it to the historic Second Vatican Council convened just over 50 years ago, which produced monumental changes in church liturgy, relations with other faiths and the conception of the roles of priests and laypeople.
"Previous synods have produced little"? What is that supposed to mean? Perhaps it means little liberal change? Has the New York Times even studied the history of Vatican synods, or are they just pulling a theological opinion out of a hat?
Among journalists in the mainstream media, it seems that only Time magazine's Elizabeth Dias made the effort to understand the most important theological detail regarding the family synod's report -- namely the level of authority it carries, or rather does not carry. In a commentary that appears geared toward educating not only readers, but also her own Godbeat colleagues, Dias writes:
For a Church that has historically linked the word “homosexual” with the word “sin,” the idea of welcoming gays in any capacity can appear to be a significant move. Headlines immediately spoke of a “dramatic shift” and a “more tolerant” stance from the church.
But before rushing to conclusions, everyone, on all sides, should calm down.
First, here’s what the document actually is:
The relatio is a mid-Synod snapshot of 200+ Catholic leaders’ conversations that happened in the Synod hall last week. It is a starting point for conversations as the Synod fathers start small group discussions this week. It is a working text that identifies where bishops need to “deepen or clarify our understanding,” as Cardinal Luis Antonia Tagle put it in Monday’s press briefing. That means that the topic of gays and Catholic life came up in the Synod conversations so far and that it is a topic for continued reflection.
Second, here’s what the document is not:
The relatio is not a proscriptive text. It is not a decree. It is not doctrine, and certainly not a doctrinal shift. It is also not final.
Read the rest. As Dias says, "Looking for revolution can be misleading. It can mar the actual story of what is and what is not happening."
The real story is that a discussion is taking place at the highest levels of the Catholic Church -- a discussion that is by no means over. That may be exciting to some who are hoping for change, but it's not earth-shattering -- not yet, anyway.
Stay tuned and read voices on both sides of the debates.